Baby Leg, like last year’s Last Days, starts in medias res. Kraus: the protagonist, the wrong man and the man caught in the middle, is in a cabin alone. He is waiting for someone to come and kill him, though he doesn’t know who—his memory fails. Night after night, he dreams of a woman with a normal leg and a baby leg who carries around an ax. As these visions continue to accost him, the woman known as Baby Leg starts telling him to do things. Kraus becomes a man of action—a very dangerous man, though he has only one hand. Soon he wanders around the unnamed town, ends up at a deserted gas station, and has a tense conversation with the female cashier. He leaves but returns after remembering there was a flyer posted of his face. It’s now gone, but the woman had been on the phone when he came back in. Soon she is dead, though Kraus and the reader don’t exactly know how. Evenson isn’t one for shock value; he knows what is sometimes most chilling is that which is not described.
It turns out Kraus is being pursued by a Dr. Varner. The doctor wants people (a male and female pair of “realtors”) to bring Kraus into his laboratory; but even though he has only one hand, Kraus is very resistant. Everything here, as in Evenson’s The Open Curtain and Last Days, has a vague sense of reality, but here the line between dream and real life is blurred to an even greater degree. Kraus, as Kline in Last Days, is followed and dragged around to the point of exhaustion by menacing hunters. Weakened, Kraus can only watch as these forces take over and take shape, only to disintegrate, as he looks on in this scene to see
haloed in the fluorescent light the strange ghost of a face, like a pale white sheet with two black holes gouged in it that seemed to stretch and come apart and never quite come back together, and then the figure made a motion and everything faded to a deep and shapeless red.
Kraus can’t make sense of the world he’s trapped in—a fantastic and psychedelic world (limbless people adorn this story and one walks about perfectly well without a leg like they are a partially erased cartoon character) that’s wonderfully rendered in a set piece about Varner’s laboratory where Kraus is suspended in a tank of water with oxygen flowing to his mouth:
He was in a room full of similar tanks, perhaps six, lined around a circular wall. Each trunk contained a body, but the plexiglass was such as to make it difficult to distinguish the face…”
At times, Evenson’s clean, Hemingwayesque prose gives way to a stunning image:
When the technician slid the needle out, with it came a spermy loop of the drug, twisting slowly away in the fluid, slowly sinking.
These turns of phrase come at key moments, but they lay in wait all about the text like a series of booby traps, like slow-motion techniques in film, knocking realism into expressionism and pressing the reader further into the dark environs of the narrative.
Evenson creates stories and settings that are disturbing and unsettling. In Baby Leg, Kraus is caught in a web he can’t undo. The character of Baby Leg is more than a ghost or a shibboleth or just an aspect of Kraus himself—she is a physicality that drives this torn man to undo his own life while at the same time saving it. Evenson takes Hitchcock’s wrong man theme and distorts his protagonist’s environment so the reader can’t easily point to the justice needed to rectify the situation. Sometimes justice is served through killing, and sometimes through killing the same person over and over again.
Not enough can be said about the design and packaging by Erik Blair, and New York Tyrant in putting Brian Evenson’s Baby Leg together. This hardback, with illustrations by Eric Hanson of the eponymous character, as well as on the cover in gold filigree, and Evenson’s “bloody” fingerprints there and on the title page (and his harrowing novella within), make this into a collector’s item classic.